C16 CHAPTER SIXTEEN
"Happy birthday to you, Chloe," Erin said, smiling at Chloe who returned the smile gratefully.
"Thank you very much, Erin. How on earth did you know?"
"Well, I remember that Lucas took you out to celebrate last year on this date. So, how are you celebrating it today? Is any of your family coming over or something?"
Chloe fidgeted uncomfortably and looked away. "I'm not celebrating it. I do not celebrate my birthday."
"What? Why not? I can't imagine not celebrating my birthday, even though I don't have many friends here." Erin said, shuddering at the mere thought. "I always go back home and my parents either throw a party or organize a birthday dinner for me. Where are your parents?"
"They're dead. Um, I have to go get something outside." Chloe said abruptly and stood up to go outside the restaurant for some fresh air. She absolutely hated it whenever anyone asked her about her family. What was she supposed to say?
"Oh, I was abandoned by my mother when I was only a few hours old. Then I was shuffled from one foster family to the other, some good and some bad, but most of them were bad?"
She had quickly learned to keep that aspect of her life private as she did not like the pitiful looks that telling her life story earned her from people. As far as she was concerned, she had tried for herself, and having people look at her as though she were the most pathetic human on earth was not something she relished at all. She knew that she was not yet where she wanted to be exactly, but she liked to think that she had done a lot without much help.
"A birthday is no big deal," she thought to herself as she stood in the cold. When she was younger, her birthdays used to be the saddest days of her life. This was not just because she had no one to celebrate them with her or even any means to celebrate it, but also because that was the day that so-called mother had abandoned her. Nowadays, she liked to think that she was over the pain, and maybe she was indeed over the pain of having no one to celebrate with, but she knew that deep down, the pain of being abandoned so early was still buried somewhere in her heart.
When things were still rosy with Lucas, he always took her out to celebrate, but that was after she reminded him that it was her birthday. He never remembered on his own, but she did not mind this. Now, she would rather not celebrate than have him take her out or even be anywhere near her.
So she bought a little cake and a bottle of wine on her way home and ate them in front of the television. As she had known he would, Lucas totally forgot that it was her birthday. He came over to her house just as she was digging into the cake and kept banging at the door even though she refused to let him in until she threatened to call the police.
"Fuck you, Chloe. You're not even that hot." He yelled loud enough to awaken the dead, not bothering that it was night and most people were already asleep. Chloe ignored him and kept eating her cake until he gave up and left. She would not allow him to bully her any longer.
Zoe got to her sister's house five minutes earlier than she was supposed to be as she had closed early from work. She had enjoyed her day at work and despite her former protests, she was glad to be spending the evening with her sister and her family. Immediately she drove up the driveway, Chuck and Natalie bounded out from the house to greet her. They stood on the veranda of their house, jumping up and down in high spirits and hardly able to contain their excitement as they waited for their aunt to come from her car. Zoe laughed a little, immense love for these two washing over her and she hastened to get out of the car so that she would not keep them waiting. Their mum had forbidden them to ever leave the veranda without supervision and unlike most children, they actually listened to her.
"Aunt Zoe, Aunt Zoe. Happy birthday, Aunt Zoe!" Little Chuck yelled at the top of his voice, still jumping up and down and bouncing on his little toes until he almost fell off the step leading from the veranda to the ground.
"Easy, Tiger," Zoe laughed. She scooped him up into her arms, saving him from falling down on his cute little face, and then she peppered his face with small kisses and tickled him while he laughed joyously.
"Aunt Zoe!" Natalie exclaimed in a pouty voice and pulled at her aunt's leg, no doubt pissed that she wasn't getting any attention. Zoe immediately put Chuck down and scooped Natalie into her arms, inhaling her scent and showering her face with kisses as she had done with Chuck, then she picked him up in her other arm. Armed with her human possessions, she entered the house. Evelyn and her family lived in a medium-sized cottage-style house, complete with the white picket fence and minus the dog. After their beloved dog, Roger had had to be put down due to old age, the Millers had not gotten another dog. Zoe loved the homey and cozy feel of the house and it was the closest thing to home that she had.
She greeted her sister who was in the kitchen putting finishing touches to the dinner that she had cooked and looked around for her brother-in-law but could not see any sign of him.
"Hmm. This place smells so yummy." She exclaimed, taking a huge breath and filling her lungs with the aroma of food that filled the little kitchen before striding over to hug her big sister and kiss her on the cheek.
"My baby. Happy birthday to you." Evelyn said, and hugged her back as tightly as though they had not seen each other for years, her droll face lighting up immediately. After some moments, Zoe pulled back to examine her sister, and sighed, not liking what she saw in the least bit. Despite the huge smile on her face, Evelyn looked so tired and worn out. She looked as though she would keel over at any moment.
"Thank you very much. Big sis, what is the matter? Are you alright?" Zoe asked in concern and some fear. The last thing that she needed was for her sister to fall sick. Evelyn was a raving beauty, and she had always been slim, just as Zoe was, but in a good way. Now, however, her slimness was bordering on gauntness and her cheekbones stood out clearly on her face. Her collarbones looked as sharp as though they could cut butter and her thin arms hung loosely at her sides. Evelyn fidgeted a little and looked away at her sister's scrutiny, looking shamefaced.
"Are you ill? Why didn't you say something?" Zoe asked again, her huge eyes filling with tears immediately. She loved her sister to bits and was not sure that she could bear it if anything were to happen to her. Sure, she acted as though Evelyn was a pain in the ass with her mothering, but deep down, Zoe was grateful for her sister and loved her more than any other human on the planet.
"I don't know what you mean by that. I'm perfectly fine. I just lost some weight. That's all. Most people will consider that a good thing." Evelyn replied wryly and walked over to busy herself with something, even though it was clear that there was nothing else to do.
"Are you sure?" she wanted to add that only a few people were already as slim as Zoe already was before she lost more weight, but she did not.
"Of course I'm sure," Evelyn replied, heaving a not-so-subtle sigh of relief when her children bounced into the kitchen and moved straight to Zoe to begin peppering her with questions. Zoe rummaged in her bag and brought out the gifts that she got for them, whereupon they moved to the living room with their excited chatter. Before she could quiz her sister some more, however, the doorbell rang so she had to stand up to answer it. It was a delivery man who had come to deliver a cake.
"Big sis, you didn't have to." Zoe protested although she was glad that her sister did not bake the cake herself. She already looked very weary and Zoe didn't want her stressing herself more than was necessary. "By the way, where's James?"
"Oh, he's coming by later. Something came up at work and he has to stay over even though he planned to come back early today. I'm sorry. He sends his love and will try to make it, even if he comes back late."
"Okay. That's fine." Zoe said, hoping that he will come back before she left. She really wished to see him and had missed him a lot. Evelyn began dishing the food while her sister set the table with some help from Natalie. Chuck busied himself with trying to steal some of the cake's icing.
"I came first in our class!" Chuck exclaimed to his aunt around mouthfuls after they had set the table and began to eat.
"Really? Why didn't you tell me before now? I would have brought you an extra gift for coming first."
"I came third, but that was because I was sick. Everyone knows that I always come first." Natalie scoffed.
"Well done, both of you." Zoe congratulated, every inch the proud aunt.
"What did I say about talking while at the table?" Evelyn asked although she could not hide her proud smile.
"Sorry. Mom." The two children chorused. Their aunt smiled at them, hoping that when she finally decided to settle down and have children, they would be as well behaved like her sister's. They finished their food and sat making chitchat, with the kids telling her all about their school and friends while her sister told her about work and asked her about her work in return.
"That reminds me. I want to keep one of my keys here. I almost lost my key the other day, so I wanted to drop one of them off with you. That way, any time my clumsy nature comes up, I will not have to go about searching for a locksmith or something." Her sister lived about one hour away from her.
"Of course. That's a perfect idea. That way, I can get to see you more often, at least before you decide that you do not want to see me anymore." Evelyn replied, seemingly trying to be funny, but something in her tone alarmed her sister and made her look her over again.
"Why on earth would I decide that?"
Evelyn looked away and did not reply. Instead, she busied herself by picking at the hem of her dress. Zoe noticed that the children were watching them keenly and decided not to pursue the matter further. She would find time over the next few days to quiz her sister over her peculiar behavior and looks.
"So, how are things with you and Justin?"
It was Zoe's turn to avert her eyes. "I don't even know. I feel like he deserves better. I don't want to keep leading him on."
"Then you should let him know instead of keeping mute about it."
"I know that. I've tried to do so, but he keeps pleading and telling me that we will work it out. I don't have the heart to ignore his pleas."
"Hmm." That was all her sister said in reply.
"Anyway, I gotta go. I wish this birthday fell on the weekend. I would have stayed over with you and the children, but as it stands, I have to work tomorrow. It sucks that James could not make it today."
"Of course. I'm glad you could make it tonight. You can visit him some other time. He really wanted to see you too." Evelyn said, hugging her sister tighter than usual, and solidifying Zoe's fear that something was wrong with her sister.
She said her goodbyes, which elicited a round of protests from Natalie and Chuck and caused them to pout. Then she drove away, resolving firmly that she would visit her sister by the weekend to have a heart-to-heart chat with her. Evelyn had denied being sick, and for some weird reason, Zoe believed her. But her behavior was very strange, and Zoe knew that she was hiding something, something that was clearly eating her up. She did not know how right she was.